A New Blog to Follow

51T5MT0B48L._SY346_Anthony Esolen, author of the brilliant book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Childtranslator of the Modern Library Classics edition of the Divine Comedyand professor of Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College, has a new blog: Word of the Day.

Check it out, it has all the promise of being a fantastic resource and enjoyable journey into history and language.

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Lowering Reading Requirements and Expectations

Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Last year, for the first time, Renaissance did a separate study to find out what books were being assigned to high school students. “The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read,” Stickney says, “has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.”

~Lynn Neary, “What Kids Are Reading, In School and Out

My Summer Reading List

library-books

With finals marked and all my grades in, I have only a couple faculty meetings left and then summer begins in full-swing. Here’s what’s on my summer reading list this year. I’m sure I’ll read more than what’s here, but here is the plan so far, in no particular order:

  1. The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto by Mortimer J. Adler
  2. The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus  by Mortimer J. Adler
  3. Paideia Problems and Possibilities  by Mortimer J. Adler
  4. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind by Mortimer J. Adler
  5. Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith
  6. The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs by Alexander McCall Smith
  7. At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith
  8. Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith
  9. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  11. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
  12. The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope by Roger Scruton
  13. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

On Reading Books: A Confession

There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to say how many of the “great books” I have not read. There was a time when, if someone were to ask me if I had read some classic work like say, The Aeneid, I would have lied, said I read it, and even feigned some discussion with what I knew of it generally. There was a part of me that, because I teach philosophy, history, theology and the like, and because I have a bit of a reputation as someone who knows a bit about a variety of topics, that I was ashamed of the fact that there were so many classics that I had not, in fact, read. What would they think of me, if they knew I had never actually read Moby Dick!?

I have also made it a priority to build a library in my home. When people would see how many books I own, I often got some snide remark about whether I had read them all, and there was a part of me that felt I needed to justify outwardly this “show” of books, even though I knew they were not for show, but for study. As Umberto Eco said on the subject:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

Furthermore, while I have taught at a classical school for eight years which draws on C.S. Lewis for its name and is saturated with references to The Chronicles of Narnia: and yet, until two years ago I had never read a single word of The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I faked several conversations at school, and probably during the interview process as well. I’m sure there are more complex reasons for why I felt compelled to be dishonest about this: pride, shame, embarrassment, etc.

Again I have to say that I used to lie about the books I’d read. I have now come to see that there is no shame in having failed to read some “great work”—for there are far too many for anyone to have read them all. Furthermore, there are even far too many of the “essentials” to have read them all! I still get a kick out of people who are shocked to discover I have never read, say, Pilgrim’s Progress. “It’s on my list,” I say, “I’ll get to it!”

The problem is further compounded by the great writers who are still writing great books. I think I would be cheating myself if I only read books published more than 100 years ago. And if I want great writers to keep writing, there have to be people like me who read (and more importantly, who buy) their work. So, I try to keep a balance between the old classics, the new classics, and just the new ones in general.

Like C.S. Lewis says somewhere (but I cannot remember where), for a good book, after you have read it the first time, then you are ready  to read it (or something to that effect). So, I can safely say that for many of the “great books,” I am ready to read them now!

So, “No,” I haven’t read them all yet. I’m working on them. I have not yet made it to War and Peace and vast majority of Dickens, but I’ll get there, maybe, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

 

How Do I Study?

As a teacher, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How do you study for [fill in the blank]?” This is a frustrating question primarily because I’ve told the students numerous times the best strategies for studying. If they haven’t heard me by now, what are the chances they’ll hear me if I say it one more time? Yet I know, sometimes “one more time” is just what it takes!

There are many things I could say, but here is a Top Ten List I put together during my first year of teaching:

#1 Have a Study Place & Time

Do not study lying on your bed or in the hallway or in another class.  Find a place where you can sit upright (a desk, table, etc.), where there is plenty of light and where it is quiet.  No matter how much you insist you cannot study without music in the background, you are wrong.  Have a “study time” set aside and do not study for too long at a time.  Take a 5 or 10 minute break every once and a while to help clear your head.  Doing all this will get you into a “study mode” where you will be able to concentrate and learn.

#2 Read for Comprehension

Do not just scan the reading 10 minutes before class begins.  Read it at least the night before, if not earlier.  When you read, try to understand what the author is arguing, (i.e. do not read it simply to say you have read it).  When you are finished with your study, know what the thesis is on the piece you are reading (what is the point of the selection?) and several ways how the author defends the thesis.  Knowing the piece well before you come to class will greatly increase your comprehension of the material.  If you do not understand something, make a list of questions and ask for help.

#3 Read Assignments More Than Once

To read for “comprehension” you will rarely, if ever, be able to read something just once.  Read the selection at least twice.  On the first read, just try to get an overall feel for what the author is doing and what they are arguing.  On subsequent readings, take your time and reread smaller sections as many times as necessary (i.e. if something is mind-bogglingly difficult, slow down and reread the sections that are difficult).  These readings are not easy and even the most brilliant minds have to read them more than once to understand them.  You are in good company if you do not understand the first time around.

 #4 Keep a Notebook

Keep a notebook that is dedicated to this class only; preferably a 3-ring binder with loose paper so that they can easily be moved around if necessary.  In your notebook keep your notes from your readings, notes you take in class, and any quizzes, handouts or study guides.  At the top of every page should be the subject matter and the date.  Keeping yourself organized like this will keep the information organized in your head.  When you notes are scattered and chaotic so is your ability to reproduce the information on a test or in a paper.

#5 Review Your Notebook Weekly

We cover a lot of information in this course and it is unreasonable to expect to be able to study all the material in one night before a test.  At least once per week you should review your notes and study the past week’s material.  Read your notes out loud and make sure you are thoroughly familiar with everything that has been covered so far.  Doing this will keep the information fresh in your mind and reduce the work needed when it comes to preparing for the exam.

#6 Make Flash Cards

When studying, particularly for an exam, make flash cards.  On one side, write questions (like from a study sheet) and on the back, write the answer.  Go over your flash cards, again and again, until you can answer all of your flash cards without looking at the answers.  Forcing yourself to reproduce the answer will ensure that you actually know the material.

#7 Find a Study Partner

It is often very helpful to find a partner to help you study.  Quiz each other and help each other understand the material.  It is often the case that studying in large groups can be distracting rather than helpful, so keep it small.  Make sure you find someone who is as motivated to do as well as you are, there is nothing worse than trying to study without some who doesn’t get a rip about the class.

#8 Write Papers Early

DO NOT write your papers the night or even the morning before they are due.  On shorter essays, complete them at least two or three days before they are due and at least one week before they are due for longer papers.  After one or two days, reread your paper and proof-read it for clarity and grammar.  Putting space between your writing and your proof-reading will greatly increase the quality of your papers (I cannot count the times I’ve reread my papers and thought, “what in the world was I thinking when I wrote that?”).  The only thing worse than writing a paper hastily the night before without any proof-reading is having to read a paper that was written hastily the night before without any proof-reading; note that whatever you can do to make it easier for someone to read your paper it will greatly increase your score.

#9 Have Someone Proof-Read Your Papers

Often times we “read between the lines” of our own papers, inserting thoughts and ideas that are not there.  Have someone proof-read ALL of your work.  Another person will not “fill in the gaps” as they read and will be able to point out areas that need clarification and grammatical correction.  Make sure the person you have proof-read your work is competent and knows what they are doing; having someone who is getting a “D” in the class is probably not a “go-to” person for proof-reading.

#10 Develop a Mentality for Learning

No matter how boring or irrelevant a class seems, develop a mentality for learning the information.  No information/knowledge is irrelevant and the sooner you learn this, the sooner you will enjoy even the most difficult and/or boring subjects.  Humanity has a lot to teach us about creation, even the most pagan and irreverent writers get some things right and looking at the world through the eyes of those with whom we disagree will greatly increase our understanding of the world.  It is the case that no matter what you do in life, either at school or at your job, there will be things you do not like, the sooner you get over your self and your preferences, the sooner you will realize that all things are what you make of them.  If you hate something and refuse to engage in it, you will be miserable and perform poorly.  You do not know everything nor do you know what you need to learn, be humble and admit that you need instruction.  For every subject at hand ask yourself, “what can I learn from this;” “what can this person teach me about humanity and/or creation;” “what does God want me to learn from this;” etc.  YOU determine what you will get out of the course and how much you will grow and improve because of it.